With majority of state in favor of teacher pay raises, question becomes how to fund them 


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Read more Oklahoma Gazette election coverage here and here.

In a place like Oklahoma, where public schools serve as the lifeblood of their communities and teachers play a critical role in the academic and social growth of children, its hard to find many opposed to a teacher pay raise.

After a mass exodus of teachers from the profession and to neighboring states, support for hiking teacher wages intensified as a public discussion. Many assert higher salaries are the key for keeping quality educators in the classroom and attracting more skilled people to the applicant pool in the future.

In Oklahoma, where teachers are nearly the lowest paid in the United States, desires for teachers to be paid more have little to do with hotly debated State Question 779, a proposal to bring about $5,000 teacher pay raises through a sales and use tax increase.

If there is one thing that both sides can agree on, it’s that they simply want to see teachers get paid more.

The disagreement arises in how to pay for it.

“I think we are getting to the point where there is going to be some type of mandated teacher pay raise in the not too distant future,” said Dave Bond, chief executive officer of OCPA Impact. “It will either be paid with a big tax increase at a time when our state’s economy really can’t afford it or it is going to come from moving resources from areas of low priority to an area Oklahomans consider to be the highest priority. We prefer the latter option.”

Proponents of SQ 779 say the state Legislature had its chance to push the teacher pay issue and reroute funds. Efforts have gone nowhere, said Tony Flores, a music teacher at Wiley Post Elementary School in northwest Oklahoma City.

“We can’t wait for them,” Flores said in reference to the Legislature. “We can’t. They had the opportunity and failed. … Our children and public schools are in crisis. We have to do something now.”

The only course of action is SQ 779, argues Flores and other supporters.

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About SQ 779

Tuesday, Oklahoma voters will decide whether to add a new article to the state constitution to create the Oklahoma Education Improvement Fund, which calls for increasing the state sales and use taxes by 1 percent.

If approved, the law takes effect July 1. The fund is expected to collect $615 million annually, which will be distributed to school districts at 69.5 percent, followed by Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education at 19.25 percent, Oklahoma State Department of Education at 8 percent and Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education at 3.25 percent.

The measure calls for teacher salaries to increase by at least $5,000.

Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future, a coalition of education, community and business leaders, pushed the measure by an initiative petition earlier this year.

After two months, the group delivered more than 300,000 signatures to the Capitol to place the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot.

Teacher perspective

When Flores first heard about the proposal, he didn’t give it much thought.

The Houston native began his teaching career in the Putnam City School District in fall 2011.

Over the past half-decade, Flores heard plans for a teachers’ pay increase.

Those plans never amounted to anything.

When Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future’s Amber England presented the proposal at an Oklahoma Education Association conference, Flores heard not just talk, but a plan with revenue tied in.

“This was a glimpse of hope that the tide might turn for the better for [teachers], and not just for us, but future teachers and students,” Flores said. “I went home and I felt relieved. I was for it, and I wanted to help.”
Like many Oklahoma teachers, Flores became involved in the campaign. As a former Putnam City School District Teacher of the Year and finalist for the state title, Flores was centered on sharing his teacher’s tale to voters at community meetings.

Despite offers from out-of-state districts — some offering Flores upward of $20,000 more in salary, the millennial teacher chose to stay in Oklahoma.

Flores doesn’t regret the decision; however, he thinks back to those offers at times, like when he gets a notice that his rent is increasing or the district has slashed classroom budgets or frozen salary step increases because fewer dollars are flowing from the state to the northwest Oklahoma City district.

“It’s difficult, and sometimes it is hard to stay optimistic,” said Flores, who teaches at a school with a large low-income student population.

“My classroom is well stocked musically, but that’s because of my own money and donations,” Flores added. “My friends in other states have everything they need, and it’s all been provided for by their district.”

Over the past year, Flores has worked to initiate conversations on SQ 779. Among talks with parents, community members and fellow teachers, Flores said he hears support.

“It gave me faith in my state when I had lost so much,” Flores said. “This isn’t just teachers, but parents, community leaders and business owners. There is a coalition in this state ready to step up and say, ‘We’ve got to take care of our kids.’”

Another side

As supporters of Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future collected signatures for a ballot question, OCPA Impact lobbied for lawmakers to eliminate a number of wasteful or nonessential state spending and redirect those dollars to a plan to increase teacher pay.

OCPA Impact’s plan of action failed to gain traction during a session in which lawmakers were tasked with closing a $1.3 billion revenue shortage.

The alternative plan remains viable, and Bond said the organization plans to continue pushing it next session despite the outcome of Tuesday’s vote.

Opponents like Bond hold concerns beyond where the funding comes from. In recent months, Bond has debated the faults he sees in SQ 779.

“This is a whole lot more than a penny for your child’s teacher,” said Bond, sharing a misconception that the sales tax increase would be limited to an extra penny at the register.

The proposal calls for increasing the state’s sales and use tax rate by one penny on the dollar.

“This is not the penny you find in the parking lot or under the couch cushions,” Bond said. “This is a statewide $615 million tax increase.”
Pennies add up.

If the proposal passes, OCPA Impact contends working Oklahoma families would contribute an additional $420 per year in sales and use tax.

Absent from the ballot title and the proposed amendment is language on how the three state agencies will use funding from Oklahoma Education Improvement Fund. A seeming lack of accountability doesn’t sit right with opponents, Bond said.

“There is nothing in the fine print that tells higher education bureaucrats how to spend that money,” Bond said. “They can do whatever they want with the money.”

Tax and school realities

At the center of the SQ 779 debate is the tax burden. Cities like Oklahoma City and Tulsa already have some of the highest combined state and local sales tax rates in the nation.

If voters approve the proposal, the state sales tax will rise from 4.5 percent to 5.5 percent.

In Oklahoma City, the combined sales tax rate is 8.375 percent with funding going to Oklahoma City’s general fund, public safety, zoo and MAPS 3 projects.

Oklahomans also enjoy low property taxes.

Over the past two decades, income and severance tax have steadily declined. Last January, the personal income tax rate dropped from 5.25 percent to 5 percent from a plan pushed by lawmakers.

It is estimated $147 million is depleted for the next budget cycle.

As Oklahoma’s tax collections continue to fall, Bond argues now is the wrong time to consider a tax increase.

“There is more than enough money to provide a pay raise for each classroom teacher at $5,000 or better without raising taxes on anyone and without hurting the core services,” Bond said, referring to the alternative plan drafted by OCPA Impact.
As Flores sees it, the tax increase is an investment in the future of Oklahoma.

“I would recommend anyone on the fence to enter our public schools for a few hours to observe the massive amount of children in one room, the condition of the curriculum and the morale of teachers,” Flores said. “Ask a teacher, ‘Do you feel appreciated?’”

Additional resources

Tuesday, Oklahoma voters go to the polls to decide on a host of federal and local races and seven state issues, which range from agriculture to the death penalty.

Polling stations will be open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Voters can find their station at ok.gov/elections.

>> Oklahoma Gazette election preview coverage: okgazette.com and okgazette.com/category/news/election-news

>> 2016 Oklahoma Voter Guide: okvoterguide.com

>> Oklahoma State Election Board: ok.gov/elections

>> Vote411.org, nonpartisan information of federal and local elections, supported by the League of Women Voters: vote411.org

>> American Civil Liberties Union Oklahoma state question voter guide: acluok.org

>> Council on American-Islamic Relations CAIR-OK 2016 Voter Guide: cairoklahoma.com

>> Oklahoma Policy Institute (nonpartisan, independent economy and government think tank based in Tulsa) 2016 Oklahoma state question guide: okpolicy.org

Print Headline: Funding decision, With a majority of the state in favor of teacher pay raises, the question becomes which route to go with to fund them.

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